Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Journey of the Auteur: Roberto Rossellini

This is a paper I wrote for one of my film classes.

(Disclaimer: I am far from being a Roberto Rossellini expert.)

The Journey of the Auteur: Roberto Rossellini

Made famous by the critic, François Truffaut (who later became a renowned filmmaker), the auteur theory was a call for change in French cinema. The auteur director simply was the creator of their personal vision that gave the director creative control of the film and was developed from film to film. (Insdorf 20) Jean-Luc Godard (French filmmaker and once critic alongside Truffaut) said about the auteur theory that "It concentrated on recognition of a director's contribution as a creator of images as opposed to the screenwriter. It's a grammar of narrative imagery which must constantly be renewed to ward off stereotypes and routine." Modern day auteurs would be directors like Woody Allen, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, because of their unique directing style and demand for control of their films. Of course for our sake I will look at an Italian director who no doubt had an irreplaceable impact on Italian cinema and also on cinema on a whole. That director, of course, is Roberto Rossellini. I will examine four of his films, to show the beginning of his vision as an auteur in the time of neorealism. I will look at the films for themes, motifs and characters that show a common pattern within the other films examined and in the other films in the director's life. In addition to that I will also examine the director's life, his influences on the specific films and the cultural atmosphere of the time and the region. The goal of this process is not to analyze each film individually, but to pin point common things found in his films that become a part of his autuerist vision. I will examine Roberto Rossellini's Rome: Open City, Paisan, Germany, Year Zero and The Flowers of St. Francis. Within these films Rossellini forms common themes, characters and subject matter much that are expressed through the use of young characters, religion and political themes. These all become facets of what makes Rossellini an auteur.

Roberto Rosselini was born in Rome during May of 1906. He was raised in a lower middle class family who held to religious ideals that were being overshadowed by the modernizing society. His interest in film began during the fascist period in Italy. Rossellini has been known to remain silent about the period in his career, considering he directed three fascist propaganda films. It's interesting to know that he directed fascist films, because once Rome was liberated from the fascists he began preparing for Rome: Open City a largely anti-fascist film. With help from Federico Fellini, who would later collaborate on four of Rosselini's films as a writer, Rossellini made arguably the first neorealist film.

Rome: Open City, as well as being the first neorealist film, was also the first in Rossellini's "War Trilogy", which included Paisan and Germany, Year Zero. In examining the first film of the trilogy, I will look at specific scenes that establish the director's visions that appears later in his works. Rome: Open City exemplified what the neorealist film became. Rossellini’s attempt for realism was achieved cinematically by doing off set shoots, using non-professional actors (among them were children) and the difficult subject matter he dealt with. This was an intended effort as well as a necessary one. When Rossellini began making this film, he was only able to acquire permission from the Allied forces to make a documentary and he began shooting when the Germans had only vacated Rome two months earlier. (Kaltsounakis) Rossellini had embarked on a journey that would shape his career and cinema.

In the film we follow Pina through her struggles to live a normal life in a tumultuous time. It's clear (often in a melodramatic fashion) that Pina has simple goals, to marry Francesco and to live a long life with him. Her story is often juxtaposed with Manfredi's story, who is an engineer and wanted by the fascist police. Through Pina, we witness the struggles of a normal person being affected by things she's not involved in. The same way we often associate children as being innocent of the travesties around them, which is a theme that Rossellini will continue to use later in an episode of Pasian and in Germany, Year Zero.

In the film we witness some of the themes and motifs that later will signify Rossellini's vision as an auteur. Don Pietro (played by Aldo Fabrizi) is an interesting character study of how Rossellini views religion. He himself wasn't overtly religious, but it's plain to see the importance of it in his films. You can see the internal struggle of Don Pietro not being able to side with the Italian resistance, because of his ties to his religion, until the end of the picture when he witnesses Manfredi's torture and death. George Kaltsounakis wrote that the priest scolds the Nazis and looks unto Manfredi as a symbol of his justification in his faith, but also as an approval to side with the resistance. (Kaltsounakis) This internal struggle is a facet of Rossellini's characters (and possible in himself, in regards to his involvement with the fascist movement) and is possible most prevalent in his later films Germany, Year Zero and The Flowers of St. Francis.

That internal confusion and struggle was powerful tool Rossellini used to engage the audience. It was a way for the audience to witness something externally through the film about something that was going on inside of them. Rome: Open City not only showed the struggle of the characters but also the struggle of cinema. Rome Open City wasn't a conventional film by any means. Rossellini was challenging the how cinema looks at the single male protagonist. Rome: Open City dismantles the singular hero narrative and reconstructs it. The use of children and Pina offsets the normal constructs of a male protagonist which intern affects the story. For example, if it wasn't for the children's bombing, the Germans wouldn't have been led to the apartment and Pina wouldn't have been killed. The children, not only disrupt the normal events of the resistance, but also challenge the narrative structure. If it weren't for these children, who are often shown in innocent light, these negative consequences wouldn't have happened. (Fisher 35) The male protagonist, no longer holds onto the normal conventions that is sacrificed when he is killed. What replaces him or what helps his convention survive is that of the children and religion which becomes clearer as Rossellini's "War Trilogy" continues.

The second film of Rossellini's "War Trilogy" is Paisan. The episodic film follows the Allied progress in Italy with a series of vignettes as the Allied forces progress further up north. To more contemporary critics this is viewed as more of a neorealist film, discounting Rome: Open City because of its melodramatic elements. The film deals mostly with American soldiers and their interactions with the newly liberated Italians. Being that the film was released in 1946, much of what was being shown was still happening or at least close to the audiences minds. The film was originally meant to showcase the U.S. Army's role in the liberation, but after working with the script, it began to take shape as more of a reaction to the U.S. invasion. In true neorealist fashion (which was quickly developing into Rossellini's auteurist motifs) he did on location shoots, had fights with producers about money and worked primarily with non-actors. His non-actors proved to be the heart of the film, using actual U.S. soldiers, German POW's and Italian citizens. This began an essential part of Rossellini's overall auteurism.

This movement away from aestheticism in hopes to capture the true reality was an essential part of the film, because it captured Italian sentiment toward American soldiers who came with a sense of entitlement into their homes. The interaction between the Italians and the Americans was a key theme throughout the film. A clear example of this is the episode of the G.I. Joe and Pasquale. Their interaction begins when Pasquale leads the drunken G.I. through the city in hopes to turn a profit on the soldier. When the soldier passes out Pasquale steals the G.I.'s shoes and harmonica. Days later when Joe sees Pasquale stealing from a truck, he detains him not knowing at first that they met a day earlier. When Joe realizes who it is, he questions the kid about his boots and asks to see his parents. When Pasquale leads Joe to his home he sees the conditions that Joe is living in and realizes that the conflict with his parents isn't worth the continual hardships they are already enduring, and Joe leaves Pasquale alone. The child challenges the conventional protagonist, by changing that male protagonist from a hero to an observer.

Along with challenging normal character dynamics, Rossellini also utilized the episodic narrative in this film. Each episode chronicles the American advancement in Italy during the liberation. The episodes don't coincide with each other like a normal narrative plot would progress, but instead it is more like separate mini-vignettes. Each episode might be separate from each other, but one thing they do share in common is it's commenting on social issues. (Bazin 34) These episodes are also tied together historically which speaks to the issue on a greater level. It is as if Rossellini wanted to again change normal narrative and still be able to relate the social conflicts of these different people and show that they are all dealing with the same problems and issues.

Paisan was a huge step forward for Rossellini. He was able to form his auteurist vision with this film and also challenge what films during that time looked and felt like. The children that challenge that normal narrative were becoming more prevalent in Italian cinema at that time. De Sica utilized children in Shoeshine, The Children are Watching Us and Bicycle Thieves. Rossellini also understood that normal heroes weren't around anymore and that fathers were often dead from the war or unreliable. (Fisher 40) That created ineffective mothers and children running around in the streets looking for trouble, something that is central in Rossellini's final film in the "War Trilogy", Germany, Year Zero.

Germany, Year Zero was a very controversial film, not only for its subject matter, but because of Rossellini's apparent betrayal of neorealism. His critics defended their accusations by saying he had departed from politics, by moving away from the struggles of the poor against Fascism and toward a more internal and spiritual story.

The film is about a young German boy, Edmund, and his struggle to fit in within the crumbling city of Berlin. He spends his days trying to hang out with other children, before he pushed away from them. The same happens with his family who find him a continual bother. In a misinformed suggestion by his former Nazi schoolteacher, he poisons his father, who is ill and a strain on their landlord, but it doesn't work out the way Edmund thought it would. He is again pushed away from his family and wanders the streets, until he kills himself at the end of the film, looking to his house before jumping off an adjacent building. This was as much as a personal film as it was a comment on German citizens. The film followed the death of his son, Romano, in 1946. Rossellini said about the film, "It is intended to be simply an objective, true-to-life picture of this enormous, half-destroyed city...It is simply a presentation of the facts. But if anyone who has seen the story of Edmund Koeler comes to realize that something must be done...that German children must be taught to love life again, then the efforts of those who made this film will have been amply rewarded."

Rossellini, after Paisan, returned to a more structured narrative and had the same themes as Rome: Open City. The open scene of Germany, Year Zero (in the international version of the film) is a title card that reads "When an ideology strays from the eternal laws of morality and of Christian charity which form the basis of men's lives, it must end as criminal madness...", which is followed by a shot of the rubble filled Berlin. (Bondanella 50) That sets up the tone of the film to show a moral and ideological struggle within Germany at that time. Much like in Rome: Open City, Germany Year Zero examines a culture still dealing with the remnants of Nazism and Fascism in their cities and the relation children have with them. Edmund's story clearly exemplifies that struggle of the reconstruction and the absence of a moral foundation. The clearest example of this is when Edmund speaks with his former Nazi schoolteacher, Herr Enning. The first encounter with the schoolteacher, he gets Edmund to sell records (Hitler's speeches) to Allied soldiers. Even then he is still feeding Edmund the Nazi ideologies. One of which Edmund misunderstands. The teacher tells Edmund that "The weak must die while only the strong should survive." This leads Edmund to poison his sick father as a way of acting out the teacher's message. (Bondanella 51) Rossellini's sentiment of a destroyed moral code in Germany at that time was clear through Edmund's actions. He was showing the effects of Nazi Germany and how it made Edmund look like a soldier and not a boy of 15. (Bondanella)

Morality is largely at play in this film. Rossellini had been trying to reinstall this sense of hope and new beginning with the "War Trilogy". In Rome: Open City, it's the children who are walking down the road with Rome in the back drop. They are the new generation, one that has witnessed the old and heading in a new direction. In Paisan, the final shot is that of a crying child over its slain parents. A child that will coincide along the rebirth of Italy as it is born from a struggle of war. In Germany, Year Zero the final scene is that of warning, but hopefulness. Edmund symbolizes the Fascist era, its ways and ideologies. When Edmund then kills himself, Rossellini is marking the end of the Fascism and its poison on the people it's harmed. The "War Trilogy" is that of accounting the struggles of the old so that we may proceed to the new. A more peaceful Italy and a prosperous one. Rossellini's movement from the real to the spiritual started with Germany, Year Zero, but was realized with The Flowers of St. Francis.

The Flowers of St. Francis is a film that has to be looked in context of its release. At the time of filming, Rossellini was involved in a high profile love affair with Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, the problem being that they were both married at the time. While being condemned by the U.S. Senate, Rossellini was making his most religious film in his career. (Brunette 1) Much like Paisan it is an episodic film, but following Saint Francis of Assisi instead of the American liberation front.

It's above all a simple film. Completely devoid of a narrative structure, it's meant to showcase St. Francis's struggle with his fellow monks as well as Brother Ginepero's want to please St. Francis. Brother Ginepero's admiration of St. Francis is something that we have seen before in Rossellini films, but has a much more positive light on it. Pina's son, in Rome: Open City, looks up to the crippled older kid who is a nuisance and responsible for bombing the Germans. In Germany, Year Zero, Edmund is constantly looking for someone to look up to, but is increasingly denied and pushed away. Brother Ginepero differs from these other characters almost only because of morality. He still posses the need to please St. Francis and his naivety is clear when he is asked, by a sick monk, to find a pig's foot for him to eat. He searches out a herd of pigs, prays to the pig to let him cut his foot and does so, not knowing that the pig belong to a local farmer. The farmer threatens the monks and asks who had done this to the pig and Ginepro steps forward to St. Francis to explain to him what he had done. St. Francis apologizes to the farmer, and makes Ginepero beg for his forgiveness. Morality clearly becomes the central figure of the film and looking back at Rossellini's films we can see he had been building to that in his earlier films.

On the surface The Flowers of St. Francis is an anti-realistic film, because of the exclusions of the monks from the socialized reality we would expect. (Brunette 2) This, in much of the same way of other Rossellini films, focuses on the characters emotional progress while juxtaposing the bitterness of reality. St. Francis and Brother Ginepro (who are actual monks that Rossellini and Fellini used in one of the episodes in Paisan) play their characters authentically. Non-actors in the film were something that Rossellini was adamant about portraying when it came to the monks. This sentiment is exemplified when Aldo Fabrizi, who plays Nicolaio the Tyrant, interacts with the monk who plays Brother Ginepero. In the scene Brother Ginepero wins over the cruel tyrant’s heart, by his piousness and unshaken resolve to Nicolaio.

What appears is what Rossellini says, could have only came from a monk portraying a monk. This had been a part of Rossellini's films since Rome: Open City. He wanted to show you reality while others hid away from it. Andre Bazin (French film critic who championed neorealism) said that "Rossellini's style is a way of seeing, while De Sica's is primarily a way of feeling."

Rossellini progressed from the founder of neo-realism into a world renowned director. His abilities to tell stories in an episodic narrative has influenced directors like Federico Fellini, who was able to manipulate his narrative in a way that is very much reminiscent of his early work with Rossellini. Rossellini's auteurist vision comes from his respect to reality and his hope to capture a true sense of it. His vision captured the authenticity of the locations, by showing the struggle of people and their want for change. With children he was able to give hope to a generation that had struggled so much. To give their struggle a future for the good of Italy. Rossellini was able to show the world the struggles of Italy during and after the war, in style that is still being reciprocated in films today. Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville shows traces of it's post-capitalistic era back to the post-war Berlin in Germany, Year Zero. Katia Lund's City of God is eerily reminiscent of the children in Rome: Open City. Rossellini's early films not only shaped his auteurist vision, but helped future filmmakers form their own vision.


Bazin, Andre. "An Aesthetic of Reality" What Is Cinema Vol. 2. Ed. Hugh Gray. University of California Press. Los Angeles, CA 1971.

Insdorf, Annette. Francois Truffaut. New York: Touchstone, 1989

Fisher, Jaimey. "The Figure of the Child in Italian Neorealism and the German Rubble-Film" Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema. Ed. Laura Ruberto & Kristi Wilson. Wayne State University Press. Detroit, MI 2007.

Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983

Kaltsounakis, George. Rome, Open City: Neorealism Wasn't Built in a Day. Cinema Scope. .

Brunette, Peter. God's Jester. The Criterion Collection. .

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